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Justin D. Burnard

Splitting Hairs

Occasionally, we get involved in conversations with Union members that wish to dispute whether their Union membership is really worth the price of the monthly dues.  Complaints range from “I never get in trouble” to “the dues are way too high”.  For those having similar thoughts, I offer the following.

We have the pleasure of representing a Police Department in northwest Ohio.  Prior to the facts in this story, the only arbitrated issue stemming from the Department was whether or not the collective bargaining agreement’s tuition reimbursement article covered undergraduate degrees only, or included graduate school courses as well.  In short, it was a model Department.  While we certainly never completely agreed with each of the Chiefs that headed the Department over the years, we were always able to discuss issues without fear of retribution or lack of honesty.
Between three and four years ago the Chief of the Department moved on and a new Chief was hired.  The elected officials in the community claimed to have performed a background check on the newly-hired Chief.  We later discovered, that was not the case.  In addition to the new Chief, a new Administrator and new legal counsel were hired by the elected officials.  Shortly after the hiring of the Chief, Administrator and legal counsel the O.P.B.A. members at the Department noticed a shift in attitude.

Every action the members took was watched and criticized.  Members began getting disciplined at a very high rate.  It was noted that members holding positions as Union Directors or Representatives  were disciplined at a much higher rate than the less visible or vocal staff.   Contract negotiations with the new legal counsel began the fall after the Chief and Administrator were hired.  In the initial negotiation meeting the Union came to the table with four (4) issues to discuss with management.  The political entity’s newly-hired attorneys presented fifty-seven (57) issues and had basically re-written the contract.  Contract negotiations lasted well over a year and resulted in the Union having to go through fact-finding and conciliation just to retain what it had in the contract.

While the contract negotiations continued, the Chief continued disciplining employees at an increased rate.  The more involvement a member had with the Union, the more likely it was the Chief would discipline that member.  The Union went to arbitration on disciplinary and contract interpretation cases eight (8) times in just over a year.  Additionally, multiple unfair labor practice charges were filed against the Department.     

While all this unrest was going on, an employee with a spotless record and over two (2) decades of police service volunteered as a bargaining unit representative.  The Employee had recently scored very well on a promotion exam and lost out to promotion after the Chief added a Chief’s interview to the promotional process.  The Employee questioned the scoring of the Chief’s interview by filing a grievance.  After filing the grievance, the Employee’s rank on the promotional list was changed from second (2nd) to third (3rd) after the Chief “checked the scores”. 

After being elected bargaining unit representative, the Chief offered congratulations in roll call and promptly instructed a sergeant to discipline the Employee for a perceived violation of policy.  The violation was upheld by the Chief and eventually by the elected officials in the political subdivision. 
The Employee had allegedly purposely failed to follow a direct order.  He had been insubordinate in doing so.  The employee was chastised during his hearing for failing to follow the order and it was implied that the Employee was a danger to the Department and the public because he could not be trusted to carry out orders.  The Employee received a three (3) day suspension for his actions.

What did the Employee do, you ask?  He allegedly failed to trim his mustache.  Yes, his mustache.  In early September the Employee was informed that the Chief wanted his mustache trimmed.  The Employee called his Union attorney and was informed to comply with the order and grieve it later if necessary.  The Employee trimmed it and reviewed the policy on mustaches the Chief had written and passed out to the membership.  The Employee grieved the issue since facial hair was covered in the contract and the policy left the length of the facial hair up to the Chief making it vague.  Throughout the process, the Employee asked his sergeants what length his mustache needed to be to avoid discipline.  The sergeants claimed they did not know.

At the hearing in front of the Board of elected officials, the Chief introduced a policy he wrote stating that mustaches could not be worn past the crease of the upper lip.  The Chief had not disseminated the policy to anyone in the Department prior to introducing it to the Board in the hearing.  Despite the Union arguing that it was impossible for employees to follow policies they did not know existed, the Board found in favor of the Chief and the Employee was suspended for three (3) days.    
The decision was covered by local media and even picked up by the Associated Press and distributed internationally.  The Union counsel even received calls from the American Mustache Institute (AMI) offering support for the Employee. Happily, an arbitrator put an end to the madness and found in favor of the Employee and rescinded the three (3) day suspension.  The Employee’s disciplinary record was cleared of any wrong-doing. 

While there was a happy ending to this somewhat humorous story, one fact cannot get lost.  Some employers will stop at nothing to break your Union.  The employer in the story spent over $565,000 in just over two (2) years fighting grievances, unfair labor practice charges and bogging down contract negotiations.  The Employer did not care what the contract language said and had no intention of following it.  It did not care about the rights of member employees.  So, the next time you or a fellow O.P.B.A. member questions what membership offers.  Remember that you have a Union that allows your attorneys to protect your rights, no matter how humorous the circumstances.